Monday, March 21, 2016

RED - the blood of angry men - BLACK - the dark of ages past - RED - the world about to dawn - BLACK - the night that ends at last

Friday a week ago four friends and I spent the night in London to kick off our Spring Break trip. Anastasia, Elisa, and Katherine went to see Phantom of the Opera on the West End. Paige and I saw Les Miserables. (Which is why this joint add in the Underground was perfect.)

We saw it in Queen's Theater, where it has had a nonstop run since it opened - 30 years ago. We had just finished our finals week, so it only hit us that we were going to see Les Mis as we were walking up to the theater, at which point we started giggling pretty uncontrollably from excitement. 

When the show was over, we did not talk. We were two of the last people out of the balcony. We still didn't talk for the whole thirty minute commute to Paddington Station. As we walked from the station to our hostel, our conversation went like this:

"What are we going to say when the others ask us how it was?"
"I have no idea."
"Me neither."

It was that good.

Honestly, I had been wondering if this was a good idea. I've seen Les Miserables in London before, and I know the original Broadway cast recording backwards and forwards. I asked myself whether I really wanted to see it again or whether this was just something to do because I was in London.

Those questions disappeared the moment I walked into the theater and saw the projection of Cosette. 

The odd thing about this production is that it wasn't perfect. There were things that bugged and distracted me (Cosette being at the top of that list). But on the whole I was more moved by this production than I remember ever being by a stage show. I think part of that has to do with the fact that after seeing this in London eight years ago I went home and read the whole book - all 1400 pages of it - and then read it again a couple of years later for school. So what I saw on stage was only part of the experience this time, and much of the power came from memories sparked of Victor Hugo's insightful examination of the psychology of different characters in the course of the book, which were cemented in my mind by two readings.

{all photos of the cast are from the Les Miserables Official Website}
The cast on the whole was good (as one would expect from a show on the West End). The actors carried their roles well, and each one had a moment or two where they just nailed it. 

Moments that stood out:

The line "and the sun in the morning is ready to rise" from "At the End of the Day" was breathtaking and accompanied by perfect lighting. I've always loved the beginning of that song and the ensemble was marvelous.

Some of the orchestration was different, which was a tiny bit distracting but also fascinating. I want to try to get my hands on a newer recording and actually compare the orchestration with the original. When I mentioned that to Paige, she responded with surprise that I know the show so well, a comment she repeated a week later when she heard me humming "Hey, little boy, what's this I see? God, Eponine, the things you do..." and noted my familiarity with more obscure bits rather than a basic knowledge of choruses. Having friends who are waaaaay more into theater than I am has made me forget that my level of knowledge isn't necessarily paltry.

Any moment with Jean Valjean and Javert together onstage was a highlight. Aside from the sheer weight of the story, the actors had a great chemistry that took the show to a whole new level.
The bishop was amazing. He moved with a striking deliberateness that was quite memorable. 

The way they used touch in this production was incredibly powerful. The bishop reaches out to touch Jean Valjean - and he shrinks away. Valjean holds Fantine at her death scene, and of course Marius holds Eponine for "A Little Fall of Rain." What stood out to me was the realization that up until this point, the only physical contact with other people that the social outcasts Valjean, Fanzine, and Eponine had had for a very long time was abusive, and at these pivotal moments, they are finally touched with compassion - literally.

Frankly, Jean Valjean made the show. Peter Lockyer played the role with a dignity and gentleness that set him far above the rest of the cast, as good as they were. His portrayal of Valjean tapped into the better handle I have on his character from reading the book and ultimately reduced me to a blubbering puddle of tears at the end of the show. "Who Am I" brought into my mind all the torment that Valjean went through on the journey to Arras. The scenes at the barricade were all the more poignant knowing that Valjean was saving someone who would take away Cosette and his earthly happiness. 

What really got me - partly because it was unexpected since it isn't on my recording - is the reprise of "A Heart Full of Love" when Valjean takes Eponine's line and changes it to "She was never mine to keep." From then on it was snuffling and digging for kleenex, as I watched the heartbreak of Valjean slowly weaning himself from Cosette's presence and literally dying of a broken heart. And that's not even to mention the reprise of "Bring Him Home," when Valjean is talking about being brought into God's presence at last. Talk about something close to my heart. 

The show took me a good twenty-four hours to process. Something I mulled over is the weird time-warp in theatre. Had I been reading the book I would have put it down often and gone away to think over a particular scene before returning to it. But that's not possible in theater. Things happen at dizzying speed, and comedy follows pathos and intermingles with profundity in a way that is overwhelming. I now remember why I went home after seeing this in London years ago and read the book. In fact, Les Miserables (round three) is now on my reading list for the summer.

There is so much more I could say, but I think I will leave it at that. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

unexpected highlights

On Saturday we had an optional field trip. It was billed as a trip to Stonehenge, which was frankly not all that appealing to me, as I'd heard reports that Stonehenge can be markedly underwhelming. But the iron age fort of Old Sarum and the White Horse of Uffington sounded interesting, so I decided to go along. I am so glad I did. 

This is a view from the top of Old Sarum. There had been a fort there since the iron age, and by the time of William the Conqueror (the Norman lord who defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066) there was a cathedral there in addition to the old fort, and he added an imposing castle. It's nothing but a ruin now, but it's really cool to climb over. There were lots of people walking very happy dogs, which was fun to see. Simon pointed out that the view in the photo below has probably changed very little since the days of William, which was fascinating to think about. 

Eventually there was enough friction between the churchmen at the cathedral and the soldiers at the fort that the bishop decided to move the cathedral down to the plain. This decision was also a good idea in terms of comfort: Old Sarum is on a very exposed hilltop, and we got a taste of the bitter wind there on Saturday. I would not have wanted to live there in the days before hot running water. So the bishop moved the cathedral down to the plain, and eventually the people who lived at Old Sarum followed. Apparently starting a new city was a big moneymaking venture in the Middle Ages, and somewhat risky. This one was a smashing success, and is now the city of Salisbury.

After Old Sarum, our next stop was Stonehenge. I'm really I glad I went with the group, because Simon told us a lot about the cutting-edge research on the place and how significant summer and winter solstice are to the arrangement of the stones. Something that I found fascinating is that as much as we may learn about what was at the Stonehenge site, we will never know why it is there and who had it built. 

It was a massive undertaking, as a group of enthusiasts discovered in the year 2000. Some of the smaller stones - blue stones weighing 3 tons - came all the way from Wales, so a group of people decided it would be cool to celebrate the millennium by moving a comparable stone from Wales to Stonehenge using prehistoric methods. It was an absolute fiasco. They ended up using fancy low-friction nylon netting, getting into tiffs with insurance companies, landing the stone at the bottom of a river where it had to be found by scuba divers and fished out with a floating crane. Eventually they gave up and the stone was carted off in a flatbed truck to a botanical garden, where it was blessed by a druid and now rests in peace. So if we can botch it so much with all our modern technology, what on earth possessed prehistoric people to accomplish this massive undertaking? We will never know, and yet instead of throwing up our hands and walking away, people are more and more fascinated by the place. 

One of the bits of research I found most fascinating has to do with the fortifications that were around Stonehenge. Usually when you are building fortifications, the thing you are defending is higher up to keep attackers out. What's intriguing about the fortifications around Stonehenge is that they were not constructed in such a way as to protect the henge from intruders. Rather, it was built to keep something inside the henge from coming out. Which I find to be downright eerie. Who knows the thought processes behind that, but it was a reminder to me that if this place was some sort of cult site, there is no reason not to think that there were spiritual forces present here. Creepy. 

Something I was thinking about while we were there is how impossible it is for me to imagine what it would have been like to live at the time that Stonehenge was built. I can imagine what it would have been like to live under primitive conditions, but I cannot begin to construct the kind of mindset that a person living in Britain thousands of years ago would have had. Several people were talking about how it was difficult to engage with the site. I think part of that has to do with all the tourists taking selfies and jumping photos, but another part of it has to do with the vast removal of time between us and the people to whom this place was important. To put this in perspective: Stonehenge was an ancient curiosity and tourist destination for the Ancient Romans. That's how old this place is - people we consider ancient considered it ancient.

All in all, I'm glad I went. Photos can't convey the wind, the smell of sheep nearby, the surrounding fields...or the traffic on two fairly large roads within a couple hundred yards of the site.

After grabbing something warm to drink in the visitors' centre cafe, we headed to our final stop, the White Horse of Uffington, which we reached after a minor delay when our bus broke down and they had to send another one out to rescue us.

The White Horse of Uffington is a chalk monument in a hillside that has been there for around three thousand years. We don't really know why it's there. You can kind of see it in the white markings in the photo below:

However, I'm pretty sure the best idea of it comes from a helicopter view, so, courtesy of google images: 

{Actually never mind: google images does not want to cooperate with me. Google it yourself.}

So anyway the White Horse was cool. But the location...was spectacular.

The top of the hill that the horse is on is the highest point in Oxfordshire. From it, you can see seven counties and mountains that are 47 kilometers away. I felt like Emma Woodhouse on Box Hill, except that the weather was moody and windy and there were no major social faux pas.

The half an hour that I spent on top of that hill was one of the highlights of the semester so far. It was absolutely amazing - something about the wind and the openness and the sublime view struck a much-needed chord in my soul. I wandered around alternately racing as fast as I could across the grass, standing stock still gazing at the view, and flopping on the ground to look at it some more. 

At the end of the day, we returned home to macaroni-and-cheese cooked by Anastasia, the one girl in our food group who didn't go on the field trip. And afterwards we had chocolate cake and ice cream and watched an episode of the BBC Little Dorrit miniseries. The cake was in honor of Anastasia's birthday, but the ice cream and Little Dorrit is a weekly event, because we are all English majors, period drama fans, and in weekly need of ice cream.

Life is good.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

my daily commute

Today, friends, I shall give you a virtual walking tour of my favorite route from The Vines into downtown Oxford. This is a route that I walk or bike most days, and I always enjoy the commute. One super sunny and clear Friday I decided to walk and take lots of photos. 

This is Pullens Lane, the lane that goes by the Vines. There are usually a handful of people walking along it going to and from their various activities. 

This postbox (collections starting at 9 am and ending at 4 pm Monday-Friday) is only a couple hundred yards away from The Vines, and it is quite handy to mail postcards from.

I walk down Harberton Mead, which is a windy road down the hill that opens into the driveways of many grand houses. Trees are blossoming here, blissfully unaware that to begin blossoming in the middle of January is a thing not to be done. 

I bike past a large open field with a church on the other side. 

Daffodils also missed the "don't blossom until March" memo. There are cheerful daffodils all over the city, in parks, pots, and window-boxes.

Volkswagen campers make me think of childhood camping in Montreat. :)

This is Harberton way, a walking/bike path through the water meadows. Sometimes, if it rains enough, it floods:

This water doesn't look all that deep, but for about 20 yards it was over my ankles. Thankfully, my leather boots are also waterproof. 

Once I get into town, the English Faculty Building (which has the English Faculty Library and lecture rooms), is under five minutes' walk from the end of Harberton way. The view from the EFL is lovely. That's Holywell church, which has a lovely, albeit somewhat eerie cemetery.

Unfortunately, the EFL itself is rather hideous. It's a testimony to the fact that even Oxford could not escape from 60s architecture.

Thankfully, however, most buildings are appropriately charming.

This is Holywell Street, just down the road from the EFL.

New College is on Holywell Street. "New" meaning founded in 1379.

The Alternative Tuck Shop is a dear little sandwich and pastry shop that is a favorite with students. The line is out the door during lunch time, and they handle the lunch rush quite well. They make all sorts of sandwiches to order, and you can get them grilled or on ciabatta or wraps. The pastries also look delectable. There's a point to the name, too. 

This is the Tuck Shop. On the same road, it's basically a kiosk where you can buy postcards, tabloids, candy bars and junk food. So you can go to the Tuck Shop or The Alternative Tuck Shop. I'll take the Alternative Tuck Shop anyday. In fact, I might grab lunch there tomorrow. 

The end of Holywell Street is the end of my journey. I can either go into the Bodleian Library and hit the books or pop down High Street to pop into Blackwell's bookshop, which has a delightful cafe on the second story. Or simply wander through town, enjoying the unique atmosphere that is Oxford.